Finding a Story: Choice Reading and Representation by McKinsey Crozier
I will give you $20 to put me out of my misery. The boy beside me looked away determinedly as the note hit my lap.
You know, I could use $20, I scribbled back. The monotone of an audiobook reader washed over us, and we passed the time with these sarcastic notes, attempting to survive the grind of middle school English.
I’ve been an avid reader for longer than I can remember. Today, I read something like 200 books annually. But until recently, I never truly identified with the books we read in class.
You see, we read whole-class novels, which are exactly like they sound: the whole class reads them at the same time. These are the books-on-tape of my middle school years, the 10-minute read-aloud sessions in elementary school, and the frantic high school SparkNotes summaries. These are the books we passed notes to avoid.
But the whole-class reading strategy does more than make us check Snapchat or fall asleep: it ostracizes students and contributes to cultural erasure, making even passionate readers like myself reluctant to come to class. The whole-class novel caters to the perceived “majority,” searching for an ability to appeal to every reader through the one-size-fits-all approach. By definition, every student reads the same story. But not every reader needs the same story.
I grew up in a white-dominated Midwestern community, and our books frequently focused on more “relatable,” white characters. Our books rarely featured people of color, and those that did frequently contributed to, rather than dismissed the stereotypes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”: “The single story [formed through lack of representation] creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” A friend once explained the high school reading experience as a person of color: “It’s like there’s this fantasy world inside everyone’s head, and it’s pretty clear that I’m not in it.”
Similarly, I don’t remember ever reading a whole-class novel where we discussed feminine themes. Most of our books were “unisex” or gender-neutral. However, true gender neutrality almost never exists in practice. “Unisex” books are supposedly intended for a gender-neutral audience, but predominantly contain stories about men. This leaves the other half of the classroom scrambling to find identity in survival stories and teenage boy angst, searching for any rare instance of selfhood between the lines.
Take my own experience, for example. When I was in middle school, we read several variations of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. And in high school, we read Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, and A Separate Peace, all of which have no female characters. Even the books with some diverse characters were often lacking in positive representation: Heart of Darkness contributes to imperialist views of Africa and has female characters who account for minimal discussion and “airtime”; and the only major female character in Catch-22 doesn’t have a name, only ever identified as “Nately’s Whore”.
Once I had choice, I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale and Americanah, finding avenues for my love of black literature through Between the World and Me and The Bluest Eye, and examining feminist themes in The Scarlet Letter. Finding my stories made me further appreciate others’ stories. I fell in love with books I never could previously. I realized it was okay to absolutely despise books about “finding yourself” in the woods. I realized it was justifiably frustrating that the high schooler’s experience of literature often completely ignores our differences. It completely disregards many of our stories.
Books are not one-size-fits-all. But the whole-class novel forces this to happen. It too frequently implies erasure of culture and selfhood. It too frequently sends avid readers running. It too frequently shows students that some of their stories are less worthwhile. It means that, at any given time, students are searching desperately for their identities between the lines — and failing.
Teachers must be conscientious of students’ uncertainty about the state of their personal stories and make an effort to implement diverse reading material in their classrooms. They must understand that our stories look different, feel different, and ring differently in our ears. Our stories become who we are, but it requires conscious effort to provide opportunity for these stories to emerge.
So, to teachers: Create a culture of authentic story-searching. Create a culture of diversity and interest. Create a culture where students want to come to class. Create a culture of inclusion, of identity, of sharing, of relationships, of respect. Choose choice reading, and watch the stories find themselves.
Here are some books I believe have a place in a diverse, high school classroom library:
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
Let Justice Roll Down by John M. Perkins
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
McKinsey Crozier (@feelthesunshyne) is a senior at Cadillac High School in Cadillac, Michigan, where she is passionate about reading and writing that is authentic, moving, and revolutionary. In particular, she is drawn to the power words have to determine the future, on both the large, revolutionary and small, everyday scales. In the future, McKinsey plans to study English and Political Science and pursue a career as an attorney. When not reading and writing, she enjoys traveling, art, social and political activism, and spending time with her fat tabby cat, Autumn.